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Jan 082010

By Bill Sullivan
Green Right Now

The German government hopes to get one million electric cars on the road by 2020, offering incentives for BMW and Volkswagen to get behind the push. France aims to have twice that many in operation by that same year. Carlos Ghosn, who heads up Nissan and Renault, expects 10 percent of the world’s automobiles to run on electricity before the end of the next decade.

A pre-production Volt goes for a test drive

Wait, wait, waiting for the Volt, shown here on a pre-production test drive

Is your good old fashioned gas guzzler going to be nothing more than a noisy, pollution-spewing bad memory by the time 2020 rolls around? That may be a bit overly optimistic, but it doesn’t mean we won’t see a significant move toward a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly kind of personal transportation in the years just ahead.

Before visions of flying cars and quiet, gasoline-free roadsters begin dancing in your head, however, consider this: If history is an indicator, change will not come about quickly or easily.

For several years now, Chevy has been touting the 2011 arrival of Volt, the manufacturer’s first electric plug-in hybrid (it has a small gas engine).

Volt is expected to run up to 40 miles on a single charge, the assumption being that 40 miles will more than cover the average commute. After that, you either have to plug it in or allow a gasoline engine to kick in to keep the battery pack charged. While the company will wait until May, 2010 to set a price tag, industry analysts expect Volt to debut with a Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price in the high 30s. Even with the anticipated $7,500 government subsidy, you’re still looking at a $30,000 investment. (This is GM’s second run at an EV; see details of the first here.)

Nissan, meanwhile, plans to roll out its first electric entry in Japan in late 2010. The LEAF can go up to 100 miles on a single charge. Nissan also is being coy about the price, but the company has stressed that it is working on “the world’s first affordable, zero-emission car.”

Tesla Roadster

The Tesla Roadster, an electric car, but not for the masses

If you are ready to go all-electric today, you have an option: The Tesla Roadster. It can reach speeds up to 125 miles per hour and can go more than 240 miles on a single charge. The slight drawback: A sticker price of $109,000, which might explain why only about 900 of them had been sold in the U.S. through the end of 2009.

Tesla Motors has announced, though, that it will be producing a more affordable, family-friendly car, the Model S. The California-based car company is taking reservations for the four-door Model S, which clocks in at a base price of $49,900.  So it’s maybe not for every family.

Hybrids? Plug-in hybrids? All-Electric (EV) cars? Or, the same, old stuff we’ve been driving all these years?

Who should prevail by the time 2020 arrives?

That depends on your vantage point regarding the debate:

  • If you are concerned about emissions and global warming and saving the planet, electric is probably the best choice, even if it isn’t without problems.
  • Weighing cost, longer-range capabilities and a more developed technology against environmental concerns? The electric-gas hybrid may be the best compromise.
  • Own an oil company? Well, what’s so wrong with those darn Hummers, anyway?

With more people thinking about greenhouse emissions and general air quality issues, major players in the automobile industry are at least looking at getting away from the conventional internal combustion engine, whether they are happy about it or not. And, while there is no question that an electric car is more environmentally friendly than any of its rivals, several obstacles stand in the way of becoming a nation of electricity-powered shoppers, commuters and soccer moms.

The LEAF, an all-electric vehicle charges to market...ahead of the charging network

The LEAF, an all-electric vehicle charges to market...ahead of the charging network

Making electric cars viable will require an extensive new infrastructure. As Toyota President Akio Toyoda told the Japan National Press Club, “What electric cars have a problem with is lack of a network of charging facilities like the current gasoline stations.”

If those power stations are built, how will they work? Early estimates on Volt anticipate a charge time of up to six hours when plugged into a 110 volt outlet, about half as much if you bump up to 220. Either way, that’s quite a bit of time to kill while someone is juicing your ride. Others suggest stations where you would switch out batteries, but developing smaller batteries will have to happen first.

Some companies are moving ahead, despite the uncertainties. California-based Coulomb Technologies has already opened four charging stations in the San Francisco Bay Area in addition to pilot ventures in Iowa, Denmark and Vancouver.

Elsewhere, car manufacturers are partnering to help insure a market for the new technology.  In Arizona, alternative energy company ECOtality is working with Nissan to provide charging stations in the Tucson area. In Oregon, both Nissan and Mitsubishi have announced initiatives to partner with the state to establish a network there.